Police, newsroom merger raises ethical questions

(LOS ANGELES) -- It was an odd call, to say the least.

A Los Angeles-area reporter was on the phone with a request: Could the Davis Police Department come along on a little sting operation?

Less than two weeks later, Davis investigators found themselves in Simi Valley Sunday morning watching an undercover reporter pose as a 13-year-old girl while a 60-year-old Davis psychiatrist allegedly arranged to have sex with her.

Before lunchtime that day, the psychiatrist was headed to jail and the "girl" and her employer had their story.

It may be months before you see the final version on television, but the case of Michael Alan Hirsch is expected to be a featured segment of a future network broadcast show and part of a new investigative news channel.

Hirsch was transported to the Yolo County Jail late Sunday night, and was released at 10 a.m. Monday on $50,000 bail, Davis police Lt. Donald Brooks said. Hirsch is scheduled to appear in court on the charges Jan. 3.Hirsch did not respond to a message left at his home Monday. A person answering the telephone there Sunday said his family would have no comment.

His case promises to help spark new debate over the role of journalists in undercover stings. One side of the issue argues a moral imperative. The other argues that it's a dangerous precedent.

The case was a first for the Davis police, but one of more than 20 generated by the Investigative News Network, a five-year-old Sherman Oaks-based news operation that specializes in undercover operations.

Based on its history of similar sting operations, the company is planning to roll out a 24-hour investigative news Web site in April, with a satellite and cable television channel to follow, said John Hancock, the firm's news director.

Most of INN's cases stemmed from its work for the Fox Network's "Stalking the Stalker" program, Hancock said, and the latest case is expected to be featured in an upcoming hour-long show the company is negotiating to sell called "Undercover in America."

The Hirsch case came in much the same way that the company's others have, Hancock said, with a youthful-looking reporter named Jennifer Hersey going on the Internet and posing as a 13-year-old named "Sherry."

Although Hersey never encouraged or suggested such behavior, it didn't take long before Hirsch began corresponding with her and allegedly discussing sexual fantasies, Hancock said.

After about three months, the discussions resulted in Hirsch allegedly masturbating in front of a computer video camera in his office between patient visits while looking at "Sherry's" picture, Hancock and police said.

That led to a suggestion from Hirsch that the two meet, police and Hancock said, and that in turn led to the Nov. 7 call from INN to the Davis police.

Davis police had never heard of the outfit and at first were skeptical, Brooks said. But, after some conversation, investigators agreed to travel to Simi Valley, where the psychiatrist and the "girl" were set to meet.

"It was kind of a mutual thing," Brooks said. INN "provided all the technical expertise, the video and the surveillance."

After the pair had talked and the doctor had told "Sherry" it was time to leave for a nearby motel, police arrested him and charged him with sexual crimes against a minor.

Investigators had watched the entire discussion between the pair while sitting in an INN surveillance van. Hancock said his company would provide that video and the video of Hirsch from his computer to authorities.

"We certainly give them the evidence that we have," he said, but added that his company never took any direction from law enforcement.

Instead, he said, INN simply made police aware of the case after the reporter had gathered enough information, a distinction Hancock said is important.

However, others have ethical concerns over whether such cooperation with law enforcement may be going too far.

"That kind of reporting raises significant questions about the appropriateness of news organizations collaborating with law enforcement," said Bob Steele, a media ethics specialist with the Poynter Institute, a nationally known think tank for journalists.

"I'm troubled by the fact that they are, in a sense, using deception to create the sting operation," Steele said, adding that providing video to authorities can undermine the vigorous efforts in the media to protect notes and video from law enforcement.

"If you go undercover, you have to make sure the good outweighs any potential negatives," Steele said.

Hancock said that is precisely what his reporter did, and that focusing on pedophiles is not questionable.

"You don't have to take my word for it," he said. "Look at the news."

"The worst thing you can be (as a journalist) is an agent of the police," Hancock said, but added that providing evidence to the police after the story was reported was not a problem.

Hancock added that there were indications that Hirsch planned to take Hersey out of state to a remote cabin.

"From a moral standpoint" such undercover operations clearly are ethical, Hancock said.

There has been significant change in Internet crime because of the readily available computer cameras that allow pedophiles to see, literally, into the bedrooms of youths whose computers are equipped with such cameras, Hancock said.

"It's just dangerous," Hancock said. "It's a phenomenon that didn't exist a year ago."

(iSyndicate; Sacramento Bee; Nov. 20, 2000) Terms and Conditions: Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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